Pandemic Pedagogy 2.0: A summary

As we bring our series of blog posts following up on the Pandemic Pedagogy initiative to a close, we thought it would be useful to summarise the interesting contributions that we’ve received. Looking back through them, we thought that they fell into three broad categories. First, there were several posts that addressed the issue of accessibility and building a sense of community among the student (and staff) body:

Second, several contributors reflected in a broader sense on the staff and student experience of teaching and learning during the pandemic:

Finally, we had three posts that explored innovative approaches to teaching and learning, from fieldtrips to assessment via the role of paper (remember that?) in the digital classroom:

To these we can add the posts that were published last year as part of the original Pandemic Pedagogy initiative, which you can find by looking back through the blog.

We hope that you have found these posts to be useful in thinking about your own teaching and learning experiences during the pandemic.

Many thanks to everyone who has contributed to this series of blog posts. We hope that you have found them useful. If you would like to contribute another short blog post or podcast/video that addresses how the pandemic has changed or affected history teaching and learning in higher education then please email Dr Sarah Holland (sarah.holland@nottingham.ac.uk), History UK’s Education Officer. We’d also love to hear your views on the Pandemic Pedagogy initiative and on these blog posts via our Twitter account.

Pandemic Pedagogy 2.0: Coreen McGuire – The Pandemic and Teaching Practice: thoughts on subtitles and accessibility

The fourth in our series of blog posts offering perspectives on Pandemic Pedagogy, is by Coreen McGuire, Lecturer in Twentieth-Century British History at Durham University. Her first book, Measuring Difference, Numbering Normal: Setting the standards for disability in the interwar period combines history of medicine, science and technology studies, and disability history. She won the Disability History Association prize for outstanding article in 2020 and is currently working on a co-authored book project on British scientist Dr Phyllis Kerridge’s contributions to science in Britain with Dr Jaipreet Virdi for Johns Hopkins Press.

You can find out more about Coreen’s work at her website, (www.coreenmcguire.com) and on Twitter @coreen_anne


Hearing loss affects around 12 million people (1 in 5 adults) in the UK.[1]  Despite its ubiquity, it remains a stigmatised condition that some choose not to disclose or to hide from people in the workplace due to fear of discrimination. The pandemic has had especially pernicious effects on Deaf people. [2] It has also been harmful to the broader spectrum of people who present as hearing and who do not or cannot disclose their hearing loss. Imagine if you will, a person who has successfully managed their hearing loss in the workplace prior to the pandemic using a combination of hearing aids, lip-reading, and other assistive technology. Now working at home, their meeting and interactions with service-users take place over zoom where there are no captions and speakers often turn their videos off due to low bandwidth (precluding lip-reading). The impossibility of using (most current NHS) hearing aids with headphones means that they have to rely on their remaining residual hearing to try to comprehend their colleagues. This means that their attention and energy is constantly exhausted in the pursuit of basic comprehension, leading to fatigue, mistakes, frustration, and accusations of incompetence. The situation is so intolerable that this person is planning to quit a highly skilled job that they have worked at for over 25 years.[3] If this highly trained professional is finding it impossible to request or receive adequate support for managing their hearing loss, then one can only imagine how difficult it must be for the many students now working in similar situations.[4]

Online learning has exacerbated existing problems around hearing loss and technology. Despite the fact that the technology that would allow people with hearing loss to participate in online learning is available, it has been frustratingly underused and underappreciated. At the start of last term, I searched advanced zoom features to try and find live subtitle functionality. I found a feature that allowed me to enhance my appearance; there was not one for captions. Building these kinds of priorities into technologies is a choice, and one that has caused widespread frustration.

Subtitles are a brilliant learning tool and a good example of a ‘curb cut effect’. This effect is so called because when disabled activists in the US fought to create dropped kerbs for wheelchair use it was quickly apparent that this design feature also benefited groups including caregivers using prams, children using bicycles, and those delivering heavy goods. In this way, assistive technology ends up benefiting everyone in society.

Subtitles work in this way because while though were originally designed by and for Deaf people, they are now appreciated by a much larger swathe of users.[5] They allow people to watch videos while in a noisy environment or when in a more public space, something that is especially beneficial to students who do not have private study space while working at home. They help comprehension for students for whom English is not a first language, and help people learn languages more effectively. They improve our ability to understand and retain technical information. For instance, a student learning Scandinavian history for the first time has told me that having captions would allow them to effectively recall and search for information on historical individuals whose names are not obvious from their pronunciation. Crucially, subtitles help people for cognitive reasons as they aid comprehension and processing. Indeed, they may be one of the most valuable teaching aids we have as they improve general cognition, attention, and comprehension of material.[6] That they help us both retain information and remember material means they are an invaluable revision tool. However, incorporating these tools into university teaching has presented some considerable challenges.

For the purposes of this blog, I have been using captions and subtitles as synonymous terms, which is not strictly accurate. A simple way of thinking about the difference between the two is that subtitles involve translation, while captions simply reproduce speech. What is critical to note is that automatic captions are an inherently flawed solution. Voice recognition technologies tend to rely on biased data sets, which lead to inadequate and faulty results—especially for users with higher voices and/or with non-standard accents. As a historian of technology and disability, I am fascinated by that fact that this is due to the origination of this technology in the telephone system.[7] As a Scottish woman however, I am just frustrated. Systems that work algorithmically are better and I have used this effectively to transcribe oral histories taken online. So far, though, I have not been able to use these systems to effectively live-transcribe speech, though there are promises that this may soon be possible.

In the case of pre-recordings, far better are STL subtitles, which allow users to edit grammar, font, format, and correct any errors. They are much easier to design so the text appears in exact synchronicity with the spoken word, which is far better for comprehension. This ensures that the subtitles are accessible for users with dyslexia or sight loss. I should note here that almost all my knowledge about these processes is owed to the generous sharing of knowledge of colleagues (particularly on Twitter) who have shared their practices for creating subtitles.[8] I spent time over the summer working on embedding subtitles into online videos and became fairly accomplished at it. However, it takes a huge amount of time to do well. A five-minute introductory film I created for one module before the start of term took me a full Saturday to successfully subtitle. Even allowing for increased speed from practice, this is an impossible ask to put on top of a full teaching load in the best of times, never-mind while working from home in a pandemic. Realistically, we cannot ask individual lecturers to take responsibility for providing subtitles. Help and support for this, including live transcription services, must be embedded into the wider infrastructure of the University, ideally backed by government support.

The coronavirus pandemic and the repeated UK lockdowns have revealed patterns of societal inequities through the repeated correlation between inequality and high mortality. Working from home has also underlined structures of privilege in the subtle advantages that households with good access to WIFI, green-space, and flexible working patterns have over those without. Yet the shift from office to home and the move from teaching face-to-face to teaching online has had some advantages. For those with chronic illnesses, the disabled, and any students who does not fit the ‘traditional’ student profile virtual learning technologies have allowed some greater degree of control over learning, flexibility around teaching, and opportunity for participation. It is crucial that these changes to teaching practice and these opportunities remain in place long term. Subtitles are a crucial part of the way that we can retain and embed accessibility into our learning in the long term.

Notes:

[1] Royal National Institute for the Deaf, ‘Facts and figures’ Accessed January 2021 <https://rnid.org.uk/about-us/research-and-policy/facts-and-figures/>

[2] The Pandemic has disproportionately negatively impacted on Deaf people including on their ability to access healthcare according to a survey done by Sign Health, Accessed January 2021  https://signhealth.org.uk/resources/coronavirus-impacts-report/

[3] I am presenting this as a hypothetical scenario to retain this individual’s anonymity.

[4] Managing hearing loss is a term deployed by Karen Sayer and Graeme Gooday in their 2017 book, Managing the Experience of Hearing Loss in Britain, 1830–1930

[5] Many auditory technologies we now rely on have resulted from disabled innovation.

[6] M. A. Gernsbacher, ‘Video Captions Benefit Everyone’ Policy insights from the behavioral and brain sciences, 2:1 (2015), 195–202. doi.org/10.1177/2372732215602130

[7] M. Mills and X. Li, ‘Vocal Features: From Voice Identification to Speech Recognition by Machine’, Technology and Culture 60, 2 (2019)

[8] Disabled activists on Twitter are a constant source of knowledge and innovation and I’ve been especially grateful to advice garnered from Jai Virdi, James Sumner, and Vanessa Heggie. I’ve also been impressed to organisations who have supported subtitles in their conferences, such as the British Society for the History of Science. Megan Baumhammer and Sarah Qidwai also did a brilliant job of making their virtual HistsTM conferences accessible.


If you would like to contribute a short blog post or podcast/video that addresses how the pandemic has changed or affected history teaching and learning in Higher Education then please email Dr Sarah Holland (sarah.holland@nottingham.ac.uk), History UK’s Education Officer.

Research Resilience – Call for Contributions

History UK and The National Archives’ Higher Education Archive Programme (HEAP) are teaming up to explore how archivists and historians have adapted their research projects and ways of working as a result of closures and restrictions on access. We are currently inviting expressions of interest in contributing case studies and more general reflections:

Research Resilience

Panel discussion and networking: Wednesday 21 April 2021, 2-4pm (online)

CALL FOR CONTRIBUTIONS

Photo of researcher at The National Archives, following social distancing measures
© The National Archives

The circumstances of 2020-1 have exacerbated pre-existing challenges across our sectors, particularly in terms of access to archive and library materials. Yet it’s also shown us innovation, resilience, and the importance of mutual learning by archivists and historians alike.

History UK and The National Archives’ Higher Education Archive Programme (HEAP) are inviting reflections on the ways archivists and historians have adapted research projects and practices as a result of closures and social distancing. The aim is to explore how changes made for COVID-19 can and should be used to address longstanding issues of accessibility and equity, and to provide practical guidance for those needing to reframe or rethink their research. We want to hear about your personal experiences, as well as creative solutions and thoughts on how to make them sustainable.

We plan to compile a series of blog posts and videos of experiences to help us and our communities explore and build on what we have learned about a blended approach to research and collections access. These will be shared online in advance of a Research Resilience event, in which we will come together to discuss, network, and learn from each other.

We are inviting expressions of interest in writing a short blog post or video on your experiences of having to rethink research and/or access to collections. This may include, but is not limited to:

  • approaches to reframing research projects, whether as a result of COVID-19, or because of caring responsibilities, disability, or structural barriers
  • practical and sustainable ways of making archive and/or library materials more accessible
  • ideas for breaking down barriers between researchers and archivists

No need to be an expert, just able to capture your experience and try to join us at the event itself for questions and discussion.

Send a brief (c.100 words) overview of the experience you’d like to share to historyuk2020@gmail.com by 5pm on Friday 29 January. If this deadline is too soon, let us know – we can be flexible.

Please note that we may have to review the timing of the event if pandemic measures seem likely to compromise attendance levels or our ability to run it effectively.

Some good reasons why History really matters

We’d like to thank Rachel Best and Leanne Smith, current and former students of History at the University of Sunderland, for contributing to this blog post, and Dr Sarah Hellawell (Sunderland) for encouraging them to share their experiences with History UK.


Unfortunately, several History programmes have closed down, including the announcement of the end of history-teaching at the University of Sunderland earlier this year, with recent stories about cuts to Humanities departments suggesting that more bad news may be just around the corner. However, as History UK’s response to the closure at Sunderland makes clear, History degrees – and humanities subjects more generally – remain highly relevant and valuable subjects for a wide variety of reasons, including:

  • The best potential employees in a modern dynamic economy are not, as all good employers know, those taught to perform a narrow and specific task, but confident, well-rounded, flexible, and, above all, thinking individuals.

  • History students gain a range of skills in information gathering, analysis, and communication that are relevant to almost all employment areas.

  • The best guarantor of employability, as a joint CBI-UUK report from 2009 argued, lies in developing precisely the ‘soft’, transferable, and person-centred skills which history degrees excel in providing.

  • As well as supplying a pipeline of skilled, creative, and dynamic graduates, history contributes directly to the economy through the heritage sector. A recent report from Historic England on behalf of the Historic Environment Forum showed that for England alone Heritage provides a total GVA (gross value added) of £31 billion and over 464,000 jobs.

The contemporary significance of History has been underlined by the Black Lives Matter movement, while simultaneously being called into question by recent government rhetoric around ‘low value’ degrees, not to mention the outright hostility of some figures in the public eye to academic historians.

It is notable, however, that while professing to speak for students, many critiques of History (and Humanities more generally) at university don’t let students speak for themselves. There is no reference, for instance, to the discipline’s consistently high student satisfaction ratings. The student voice (or voices) purportedly so important to policymakers, is rarely heard.

We were therefore delighted to receive the following contributions from two students of History from the University of Sunderland, which we think give a real flavour of why History matters for them.

 

Rachel Best, 2nd Year History student, University of Sunderland

The years before I considered doing any sort of degree were years languishing in, what the present government calls, unskilled work.  It is far from that, however, but, to some, it may become unfulfilling when these types of jobs become the only option in which to earn a living.  I decided, then, to apply for the Politics and History BA Honours course at Sunderland University, as the choices of Politics and History graduates are many when the time comes to explore career options.  Additionally, this course allowed me to have an eye on my future, while exploring my passions in an academic setting. It revealed so many more avenues of interest than my mere hobby status in these subjects allowed.

At the beginning, I believed my personal focus would err towards a political weighting of the degree.  But, as my studies have progressed, I have found the History modules I chose to be of greater interest and inspiration.  I have met many people from the long eighteenth century I had never encountered before, who deepened my understanding of the “whys” and “hows” that frame our engagement with society and the state we live in now.  I have met people from Africa, the Americas, Russia, France, Germany, the former Dutch Republic and, of course, the United Kingdom, who have all contributed to, through critique or celebration (but mostly critique!), the social and political organization we see all around us today. It reveals how we are all connected.

Studying this course has opened an inner world that I barely knew existed before I embarked upon my advanced studies. I can write. I never knew that before. I can present evidence and analysis in support of concepts that I was hitherto ignorant of only two years before. I want to be better at this. I have tapped into the rich reserves of academic thought that present humanity at its most complex.  I want to know more! This course has given me a purpose. By engaging with the past, History has given me a future.

 

Leanne Smith, PhD Candidate at Newcastle University, BA and MA History graduate from the University of Sunderland

I had always regretted not going to university when I left school so after the birth of my son, I took the opportunity to fulfil this life-long dream. What I would study was never in question. Whether it was visiting museums, art galleries, watching a documentary (anyone who knows me knows how much I enjoy a documentary), or simply reading a book I have always been fascinated by history. I completed an Access to Higher Education course at college. After attending an open day and an amazing taster session I applied to the University of Sunderland. The course was exactly what I was looking for and as my son was still young, so it was important that I stay local.

As a mature student, I was nervous about attending university. I had never written an essay and had taken my last exam in 1996 but I graduated with a first- class honours degree in 2017. I immediately enrolled onto the new Master’s degree course in Historical Research, also at the University of Sunderland, to pursue my interest in intellectual history. It was during my MA that I started to think about the possibility of applying for a PhD. Because of my circumstances as a single parent I knew that without funding it would be too much of a challenge. With the support of the lecturers at both Sunderland and Newcastle University I put forward and application for funding through the Northern Bridge Consortium. I am now over half-way through the first year as a fully-funded PhD student at Newcastle University.

Studying history has not only expanded my knowledge of the past and allowed me to develop a long list of ‘transferable’ skills but more importantly it has also shown me why knowing our past is important. I had previously, and rather naively, accepted without question what had been written. The history I had known was stories of progress and glorification. Studying history has taught me to challenge the existing historical narratives. To question what I have read and heard. To challenge my own preconceived ideas. For me personally it has provided me with a new way of not only looking at the past but also seeing and understanding the world around me.

Panic Not: The Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook

In 2020 History departments suddenly had to think seriously about how to move teaching online. For most, this ‘emergency phase’ was a daunting and challenging time, but for some historians, there was also a sense of cautious excitement.  As a subject-area, we have tended to prefer physical settings and interactions over digital ones. The Canadian historian Dr Sean Kheraj has observed that COVID is making us use tools that are unfamiliar to many historians and forcing us to upskill to work within a digital landscape that we have often overlooked.

At History UK, we recognised a need to support the history community during this time of transition. From late May 2020, a group of Steering Committee members have been meeting to discuss how to do this. Our Pandemic Pedagogy subgroup have run a series of Twitter chats to see what colleagues have learned from the new role online learning has come to play. As part of this process, we have written a series of short posts (on learning design, lectures, contact hours, assessment, accessibility, and community building in the classroom and in wider cohorts) and gathered feedback from the wider community.

As a result of this work, we have produced a short guide to help colleagues in thinking about what it means to move our teaching online – The Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook. You can access it at the The Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook webpage, where you can also download the full Handbook and each of the individual sections in PDF format. 

We framed the Handbook around a number of questions:  

  1. What happens to our students’ experience of learning, in and out of the ‘classroom’?
  2. What happens to accessibility?
  3. What happens to community?
  4. What happens to seminars?
  5. What happens to primary source work?
  6. What happens to lectures?
  7. What happens to assessment and feedback?

This is not the end of our commitment to creating a space for collaborative conversations around pedagogy in the time of a global pandemic. We invite colleagues to write short posts that we can share on our blog in order to keep the conversation going. Topics could include (but are not limited to): practical case studies of teaching online, think-pieces that address any aspect of the move online such as equity, diversity and inclusivity, community building, teaching and learning. technology, digital humanities. Please share your insights into any of these areas, especially if you have practical examples of approaches to teaching History online, and encourage colleagues to do the same. 

We are also interested in receiving feedback on the Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook itself. Please do let us know if it has informed your practice using the comments section on the Handbook webpage and/or @history_uk.  

We would like to thank everyone involved in putting together this guide. The project was led by Kate Cooper (Royal Holloway/ @kateantiquity); steering committee contributors were Lucinda Matthews-Jones (Liverpool John Moores/ @luciejones83), Yolana Pringle (Roehampton/ @y_pringle), Manuela Williams (Strathclyde/ @ManuelaAWill), and Jamie Wood (Lincoln/ @MakDigHist). We were joined by Louise Crechan (Glasgow/ @LouiseCreechan) and Aimee Merrydew (Keele/ @a_merrydew) as Pandemic Pedagogy Fellows.